There is, undoubtedly, a certain standard of excellence that must be upheld. A command of the mechanics of playing one’s instrument. A deep and nuanced understanding of the vocabulary, grammar, and language of music. An appreciation of the point of it all.

But in a day and age in which the level of technical musicianship is higher than it’s ever been, what if we are reaching a point of diminishing returns? After all, how much more is a listener willing to pay for a performance that is 2.4% better in tune, has 3.6% fewer botched notes and 1.9% cleaner sound?

I think on some level we all know, that whatever our instrument, whatever our profession, technical excellence is a necessary but insufficient pre-condition for success.

The key to becoming legendary

You know how sometimes you hear about someone who has done something amazing, and suddenly you think to yourself, “Crap, look at what this person is doing. Why am I sitting on the couch in my sweats eating leftover chinese watching Netflix?”

That happened to me the other day (only sans sweats, chinese, and Netflix) as I read about the guys behind the show The Buried Life.

For those who have never heard of this show, it’s a show about four young guys who travel around the country crossing items off their list of things to do before they die, while helping others cross something off their list as well.

To this point, they’ve crashed a party at the Playboy mansion, been on Oprah, made a TV show, written a book, played basketball with President Obama, and crossed seventy-some other items off their list.

When one considers the audacity and persistence necessary to make these ideas a reality, it served as a reminder of how safe we play it (myself included) on a day to day basis.

Boldness and audacity

What if success comes not to those who wait (and practice, and wait, and practice, and wait some more), but those who practice, go do some bold audacious stuff, regroup and practice, and do some more crazy stuff, regroup and practice some more, and go off again to change the world?

There are already plenty of examples in the arts of people who have made a contribution and a difference in the world not by being perceived as the best at what they do, but by being perceived as the only ones who do what they do (to loosely quote Jerry Garcia).

The Kronos Quartet, for instance.

(Incidentally, here is some little-seen video of violinist David Harrington on the quartet’s early days, on getting noticed, and on the problems of getting people to show up.)

Brooklyn Rider is another group which seems to know what it believes in, what it wants, and recently raised an impressive $50,565 on Kickstarter.

ICE has made it a point to avoid becoming a traditional orchestra. Seems to be working, as they have grown from a budget of $500 to something in the neighborhood of $1,000,000.

Former American String Quartet cellist-turned-tech-entrepreneur Margo Drakos, is changing the world, and leading a movement to leverage technology in service of the arts.

Maximizing use of time

After all, once you are among the top several percent in your field, how can you differentiate yourself from all the others in such a crowded space? Assuming two people of roughly equal ability and desire, the only way to stand out in a direct comparison is to either practice more, or practice more efficiently – and given the limits of time and energy, how much can one person really pull away from the other?

The controversial, but one-of-a-kind Tim Ferriss says:

“It’s lonely at the top. Ninety-nine percent of people in the world are convinced they are incapable of achieving great things, so they aim for mediocre. The level of competition is thus fiercest for ‘realistic’ goals, paradoxically making them the most time- and energy-consuming… The fishing is best where the fewest go, and the collective insecurity of the world makes it easy for people to hit home runs while everyone else is aiming for base hits. There is just less competition for bigger goals.”

Perhaps (again, assuming a requisite level of excellence has been reached), one’s time can be maximized by finding something that one believes deeply in. Some big, juicy, audacious idea, that once you’ve gotten a glimpse of it in your head, you can’t imagine a world without it. Something, that becomes so much a part of your voice, your artistic or professional identity, and who you are, that you’re willing to do whatever it takes to get it out into the world where it can make a difference. As Seth Godin says, we need you to lead us:

Take Action

Cliche as it sounds, have you compiled your list of 100 things to do before you die? What would happen if you narrowed this list down to a top 3, and then began doing whatever it took to cross one of them off your list?

Read about the guys behind The Buried Life, and their formula for success if you haven’t already.

Check out The Buried Life. Really. And remember that while it’s now a TV show with all that that implies, it began as an experiment to see how much truth there might be to the saying “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.”

Take stock and ask yourself what you might unwittingly be shying away from. Are there any stones that have been left unturned? Have you avoided telling certain people about your recital because you’re afraid of what they may think? Are you procrastinating on producing a CD of the piano trios you composed? Have you written the book that you feel is inside of you? Have you put plans for a 3-day festival of music composed or influenced by holocaust survivors on the back burner because of the fear of fundraising and meeting with potential donors?

Above all, write something down, and turn it into a plan of action. Without action, nothing changes.

The one-sentence summary

“Most of us have two lives. The life we live, and the unlived life within us. Between the two stands Resistance.”  ~Steven Pressfield (from The War of Art)